Review: Don’t Call it a Riot

By Celeste Bennett

Tickets available online at Brown Paper Tickets.
Playing at 12th Avenue Arts in Seattle May 30 – June 23, 2019

In late July 1968, Seattle Black Panther Party members Aaron Dixon and Curtis Harris were arrested after being accused of possessing a stolen typewriter that was found during an early morning police raid. Citizen protests arose in the Seattle Central District. Both men were later acquitted. Writer and director Amontaine Aurore has created a thoughtful and compelling Seattle-set play that opens with the events of July 1968 and carries through to the World Trade Organization protests of 1999.

Enter the theatre in advance, just to examine the sets created by Parmida Ziaei, Matthew Smith and Lauren Holloway with assistance from the Art of Resistance & Resilience Club (Franklin High). The first thing one notices are the books and newspapers. Rotating sets are wallpapered with them, open books intertwined with images of Billie Holiday, James Baldwin, and other icons. The opening monologue delivered by Sam (Mic Montgomery) references the power of the pen, or as Sam says, “in this case, the typewriter.”

The first act takes place in a home shared by Sam and Reed, his partner in life and the Black Panther movement. Reed, played masterfully by Meysha Harville, is six-months pregnant, an eloquent and impassioned law student fighting for justice in an era when police are brutally suppressing dissent after a bullet silenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As she says after reading verbatim from a news report of the time, “Don’t call it a riot. It’s a slavery insurrection.”

The play is filled with tension and truths that hit hard even when delivered with grace. Reed supports Sam in his work to strengthen Black power and establish a Black Panther meals program in Seattle, even though it means he must leave her for days at a time. After an arrest leaves Reed’s friend Marti (Lillian Afful-Stratton) homeless, events occur that powerfully alter the course of all characters’ lives.

The resolution of what happens in Scene I drives the rest of the play, written skillfully enough that the outcomes are not predictable. During the short intermission, the staging has been adjusted to convey a leap forward to 1990. New posters adorn the walls, showing us Mumia, Nelson Mandela, and Rage Against the Machine. The bookcase is still there but sideways to us, and a laptop sits atop the table. We meet Falala (Skylar Wilkerson) who is preparing for the WTO protests despite the objections of Paris (Robert Lovett). Their differences are showcased as Falala focuses on the need to act against corporate greed and Paris emphasizes commitment to non-violence. The past is present, and Reed and Marti are reunited to untangle how we recognize and live out personal power when powerful organizations exist to undermine.

The playbill includes a list of recommended books and films, including The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution* and a weblink to a series on the making of the play. Don’t Call it a Riot was a finalist in the Bay Area Playwrights’ Festival in 2017 and premiered in 2018.

*Available via Jefferson County Library.